Interview with South Korean Translator Walter Byongsok Chon

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You and I met at a conference at Cornell in 2018. I believe you teach at Cornell, is that right?  How did you begin translating? 

I actually teach at Ithaca College. I joined IC as Assistant Professor of Dramaturgy and Theatre Studies in 2016 and have been developing a new dramaturgy program there. I teach Script Analysis, Dramaturgy, and Theories of Performance, while mentoring student dramaturgs on department productions.

Translating has been an interest since I started pursuing theatre as a graduate student, which started when I entered the MA program in Performing Arts at Washington University in St. Louis in 2005. My first translation of a full-length play was Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Doppelganger, which I translated from German to English for James Magruder’s class Translation and Adaptation at Yale School of Drama in 2009. I chose this German play not only because of its intriguing frame, theme, and structure but also because of my desire to relearn German. I was born in Germany, spent my childhood there, and have research interests in German Romanticism.

I translated Inching Towards Yeolha in the summer of 2010 via the request of Korean director Kon Yi. Yi was a student in the M.F.A. in Directing program at Columbia University and was looking for a play for his director’s thesis project. As there was – and still is – a lack of Korean plays produced in the U.S., he wanted to direct a translation of a Korean play and found this play to be suitable. My translation was then adapted by playwright Kyung H. Park into Walkabout Yeolha and was staged in October 2010.

What should we know about the playwright and the play? 

The playwright’s bio can probably sum up his accomplishments:

“Sam-Shik Pai is an acclaimed contemporary Korean playwright and a professor of playwriting at Dongduk Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea. He launched his career with his play November, which premiered at the Seoul Performing Arts Festival in 1999. He has written award-winning plays including The Woman from Afar (2014 Cha Beom-Seok Drama Award for Best Play), The White Cherry (2009 Donga Award for Best Play), Inching Towards Yeolha (2007 Donga Award for Best Play, Dae San Literary Award), and A Fairy in the Wall (2005 Donga Award for Best Actress). His recent play 1945 premiered at Myeong-Dong Art Theater in July 2017. He holds a B.A. in anthropology from Seoul National University and an M.F.A in playwriting from Korea National University of Arts.”

About the Play (from my article, “A Contemporary Korean Play Meets New York Audience”):

“Inching Towards Yeolha premiered at Towol Theater in Seoul Arts Center in South Korea, directed by Jin-Taek Sohn, in March 2007. A literal translation of the original title would be “Inching Towards Yeolha,” Yeolha being the destination of Jiwon Park (a.k.a. Yeon-Ahm), an 18th-century Korean philosopher who traveled to China in pursuit of practical ideas to modernize Korean society. Based on Yeon- Ahm‟s travelogue, The Jehol Diary, Pai created an allegorical satire, exploring the questions of tradition and innovation. Pai introduces us to a nearly-fossilized, fictive village in a desert, and guides us through the turbulence the village undergoes at its first encounter with what the villagers call the “exotic.” Yeon-Ahm, the narrator of the play, is a “four-legged beast” and, as she tells the villagers of the world outside the village, provides the initial conflict of the play. Her talking eventually makes her the scapegoat to save the village from being ‘erased.’”

We don't see many South Korean plays on American stages. Why do you think that is? 

Overall, I believe translation is still an underexplored and underutilized area in theatre practice and production. While theatres in the U.S. strive for more diversity and inclusion, both for the season selection and for the personnel involved in production and administration, the focus at the moment is more on representing marginalized American (or U.S.-based) voices, rather than international voices. Also, while there are many productions of translated classics – of European classics, Chekhov, and even Shakespeare – productions of translated contemporary works are still very rare. Many questions accompany this situation: How can new translations connect with contemporary audience?; How can they please subscribers?; If selected for production, how can the cultural difference be represented authentically?; What are the risks for the board of directors of the theatre?, etc.

South Korean plays face a particular challenge because of the short history of modern theatre development in Korea. Korea’s theatre scene suffered a disconnect in the early twentieth century while it was under the occupation of Japan. Only after 1950 could Korean theatre emerge again. While the Korean theatre market has been growing, especially in musical theatre, it has yet to build a more solid national foundation in order to expand its reach abroad.  It is, though, promising to see many new voices, such as Pai’s, that portray Korean topics and sentiments, experiment with different forms (both Korean and Western), and connect with contemporary theatre goers in Korea. Translation offers a possible pathway to spread word about the richness of Korean theatre.

More about Korean Theatre in the U.S. (from my article, “A Contemporary Korean Play Meets New York Audience”): 

“In the American theatre scene, contemporary Korean playwrights are only to be found by avid researchers aiming to find them. Part of the reason is that Korea’s theatre development suffered a disconnect in the early twentieth century while it was under the dominance of Japan. Only after 1950 could Korean theatre emerge again. In the director’s note, Yi mentions he found only three Korean playwrights whose works had been translated into English – Taesuk Oh, Yun-taek Lee and Kang-baek Lee – which gave him a strong incentive to bring Yeolha to life in New York. Though the three aforementioned playwrights are some of the most recognized playwrights in Korea, hardly any of their work has received a professional production in America. In theatre history education, the significance of Korean theatre is mostly allotted to the ritual tradition of Kut and mask dance called Talchum. However, these modern and contemporary playwrights are hardly covered compared to well-recognized Asian playwrights such as Gao Xingjian (China, The Bus StopThe Other Shore), or Yukio Mishima (Japan, The Lady Aoi). While Korean-related themes are depicted by playwrights such as Young-Jean Lee (Song of The Dragons Flying to Heaven) and Lloyd Suh (American Hwangap), it is reasonable to say that these two authors write from a distinctive Korean-American perspective.

The American audience was first exposed to a Korean theatre production with the LaMaMa production of Prince Hamul, an adaptation of Hamlet, directed by Minsoo Ahn, in 1977. A revival of this piece called Hamyul/Hamlet played LaMaMa in July 2011, directed by Byungkoo Ahn, the son of Minsoo Ahn. Recently, more Korean troupes have been bringing their acclaimed productions to America. In 2009, Sadari Movement Laboratory performed their adaptation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, directed by Do-Wan Lim, at the Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar Festival. Seoul Factory for the Performing Arts (SFPA) put on their adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, called Medea and Its Double, at LaMaMa in January 2010. These companies imaginatively fused western classics with traditional Korean performance elements and created original works crossing over both cultural traditions.” 

In the 2010s, “several new Korean and Korean-American voices have emerged, including Hansol Jung (Cardboard Piano at Humana Festival, Among the Dead at Ma-Yi Theater Company), Celine Song (The Feast at MAP Theater in Seattle), and Jihae Park (Peerless at Yale Repertory Theatre). Yet translation of contemporary Korean plays still remains an underexplored field. In the current climate where theatres actively pursue diversity and inclusivity, I believe translation can offer an additional international perspective. A production of a new translation opens up intercultural communication. For this reason, revisiting and reposting my article on translation will hopefully bring new attention to the value of translated works.”

What projects do you have coming up? How can we learn more about them? 

For translation, I am visiting South Korea this summer and will look for another play to translate. I am a co-managing editor of South Korea for The Theatre Times, so I will watch several productions in Korea, write about them, and hopefully will find a play that I believe will resonate with the U.S. audience. I will seek opportunities to present my translation at LMDA, ATHE, or ALTA conferences and possible theatres. I will post my accomplishments on social media (although I still have much to learn about self-promotion and advocacy.)


Inching Towards Yeolha | South Korea

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

6:30 - 9:30 PM

Instituto Cervantes Chicago (map)

Playwright: Sam-Shik Pai

Director: David Rhee

Translator: Walter Byongsok Chon

In collaboration with Token Theatre

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